Volunteers keep Ice Palace momentum strong

Alex Madden, left, and Emileigh Kukuvka pull an ice block into place on one of the Ice Palace’s towers. Madden’s been building Ice Palaces since childhood. This is Kukuvka’s sixth Ice Palace. She said she keeps coming back because, “It’s fun to do.” (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

SARANAC LAKE — By the end of this past weekend, the Winter Carnival Ice Palace was on the rise.

Every day, around 50 volunteers turned out to cut ice blocks, yank them from the lake and start stacking them on the shore of Lake Flower. By Sunday afternoon, the walls were going up and the towers were well on their way.

“We’ve got plenty of ice,” Ice Palace Workers 101 Director Dean Baker said. The ice was measured at around 15 inches thick, he said.

It’s “the bigger, the better” for the blocks, Baker said — up to a point. If they get too tall it’s hard to step up from one layer to the next.

The work started Friday morning at 9 a.m. Two hours earlier, the temperature was the coldest it’s been in four years.

From left, Dan King, Andy Walkow and Chris Grimone slide an Ice Palace block into place on Sunday, creating another layer of one of the structure’s towers. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

All weekend, the place was abuzz with commotion — machinery, people shouting, ice being chipped. The workers make up a “well-oiled machine” volunteer Dan King said.

The volunteers use a plethora of tools — hand saws, chainsaws, ice saws, tongs, scoops, spuds, shovels, buckets, excavators, a knuckleboom loader and frontloaders.

The skills to use these tools have been passed down through the generations. Some people have been doing it for decades. Some of the builders are retired folks who have been doing this their entire lives.

Ken Lawless was teaching his son Liam, 6, how to slush the Palace, filling the gaps between the ice bricks with a grout-like mixture of water and snow, which binds the blocks together. This was Liam’s first year working on the Palace, but Ken said he’s been asking to join in for a while now.

Liam’s birthday was last week, and on Sunday, he was excitedly getting his mittens wet and slapping the slush into the cracks in the wall.

Liam, left, and Ken Lawless slush the Ice Palace on Sunday afternoon. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

“I love slapping,” Liam said. “Boom!”

Winter Carnival Committee Chairman Jeff Branch’s son Logan was working the hand saws and chainsaws, taking shifts with others to stay fresh.

Rob Russell moved to Saranac Lake in 2018. He’d visited often before for Carnival, and started volunteering as soon as he put down roots. He said he loves the camaraderie of the build.

“It’s neat hearing the stories from years going back,” Russell said.

Garrett Foster, who for the past 18 years has cut the ice blocks out with a homemade saw built by Harry Duso in 1939, was taught how to cut by Harry’s son, Don Duso.

Andy Walkow watches as a knuckleboom loader — a machine on loan from Paul Smith’s College, typically used for logging — delicately sets an ice block into place, creating another layer of one of Ice Palace’s towers on Sunday. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

Alex Madden’s been working on the Palace since he was a kid. His father, Bill, is one of the lifetime Palace builders.

Alex didn’t always love it, though. He remembers dreading going out in the cold to slush every day during construction every year.

“I did not really like the Ice Palace back then,” he admitted with a laugh, but he came around.

He took a a 12-year hiatus when he moved away. But when he moved back to Saranac Lake, he picked the work right back up where he had left it, putting the skills he learned in his youth to use.

“It’s in the blood,” Alex said.

From left, Andy Walkow and Dan King work on the Ice Palace in the snow on Sunday. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

Bill himself is in his 41st year of Ice Palace construction, Alex said. Several of the seasoned workers at the site Saturday were the same people Alex had worked with as a kid.

“I think they have to be six feet under before they stop,” Alex said.

Jeff Branch said Bill, the Palace’s ice removal and distribution chairman, has been working on the Ice Palace through thick and thin, even in years where there was less help.

“In the lean years, Bill used to come down here. He’d cut a block of ice and bring it up himself,” Branch said.

Even through funding droughts, he said the Carnival Committee always got Madden the money he needed to build the Palace. Missing a year, Branch said, could make the project lose all its momentum.

“That’s my biggest fear,” he said.

Last year, though Carnival was drastically reduced because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Palace still went up as normal. Branch felt they had to — he’s afraid if they didn’t do it one year they’d lose their “mojo.”

This year, there was talk about the ice castle opening up in Lake George this week, created by Utah-based company Ice Castles. Branch said he doesn’t see this as a “competition” though. Besides, the Saranac Lake Ice Palace is a unique thing, created solely by volunteers. And it doesn’t cost the village anything.

“We do it for free,” Branch said.

The Ice Palace design starts at a table in the Belvedere, where a group sits around playing with wooden blocks Joe Plumb built. They hash out what works, and then sketch out their blueprints on the back of a menu.

Baker said the Palace has to be done by Feb. 3, the day before Carnival’s opening day. Any earlier is just icing on the Ice Palace.


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